Ladies: stop committing professional suicide!*

Mar 29, 2010 by

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but my recent engagement has brought it to the fore again. Yes, I’m engaged…it’s awesome and scary all at once. That subject may deserve its own post at sometime in the future.

Regardless, there is something I’ve known for a long time: in today’s professional job market, changing one’s name is equivalent to committing professional suicide. In addition to the traditional feminist concerns (i.e., subsuming your identity to another adult person’s; the implied transfer of property and ownership rights from your father to your husband, etc.) and the sheer pain in the ass-ness of it, I submit that changing your name after you get married – or for any other reason- is about as close to professional suicide as you can get.

Your name is everything you have professionally. In this day and age when the content you produce is largely available online and when employers, colleagues and others can and will Google you at a moment’s notice, if you can’t be found you don’t exist. Plus, you build your reputation around your name. Your skills, knowledge and potential are all wrapped up in it. Why oh why then would you change it?

Maybe it’s because people think you should? In fact, according to this article cited by Feministe, 50% of Americans think women should be required by law to change their names when they get married (I’m seriously shocked at that, but frankly not that surprised). But who cares what people think? Lots of people think you should accept a crappy nonprofit salary and drudge work for the first 20 years of your career before you move up. Are you listening to them? I certainly hope not.

*Note: this post is addressed at women because 90% or more of them change their name once they get married and in many places its extremely difficult or even illegal for men to change their names.

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  • Great post! And I agree, no one should have to change their name… but a couple things:

    1) “Your name is all you have professionally” – If that’s true, than I feel for the person and the profession. Your name is very important, but your relationships, experience, expertise are all also.

    2) The survey saying 50% think women should be required by law seems really off. Even the poll being conducted on the website of the article has 77% saying it’s a women’s choice.

    3) Many women take their spouse’s name because they want to, not because they have to. As a man, I wouldn’t mind taking my partner’s name, or a hyphenated version, at least legally. But, I can still use my current name in my business… many celebrities do this (because of the name recognition) and we could possibly all learn something from it.

    Just my thoughts…

  • Thanks for the comment Chris! Some thoughts on your points:

    1) When I said your name is all you have I guess I meant it a little more metaphorically. But then again, since its the first thing people tend to look at on your resume and it’s usually in your email address and you record it on your voice mail and you introduce yourself with it everywhere you go…I tend to think its pretty paramount. And since your relationships, experience and expertise are all attached to it (whether you author papers or blog posts, give speeches or consult) once you change it, you lose whatever name recognition you may have gained through all that work.

    2) On the 50% number: this link on the IU website is the closest I could come to getting to the actual survey findings: The blurb says “Surprisingly, respondents even split fairly evenly in their support of government regulation requiring name change.” It is a shocking statistic but I believe based on the date of the post on that page that the survey was likely done in 2008, making the results still pretty current.

    3) Yes, its true that many women take their husband’s name because they want to. Putting aside the actual social context which almost certainly influences their decisions more than they think, I fully believe they should have that choice. I’m simply arguing that its a bad decision that can damage one’s reputation irreparably. And you are right that they can retain their original name (I refuse to use the term ‘maiden’ since it only defines us relative to our relationships with men) in business and change it elsewhere, but I think its just even more confusing for everyone involved. But again, it is and should remain a choice that each woman makes on her own.

    Thanks again!

  • Great points, Elisa. This is exactly how I feel about my name. I’ve taken years to build up my professional reputation and ever I’ll be damned if I’m gonna change the name I’ve put behind that. My mom came against the same challenge when she remarried. She decided to keep her name from her first marriage because so many people in her professional circle knew her by that name.

  • Thanks Rosetta. You and your mom are great examples of why people (women) should think twice or three times before changing their names. I can’t imagine you as anyone but Rosetta Thurman or your mom as anyone but Kimberly Linton. Some may argue that a name doesn’t mean that much, but they’re wrong 🙂

  • A Mrs. New Last Name

    I see the point you’re trying to make. I, personally, have taken my husband’s last name and use it in my personal life, but professionally I still use my maiden name. Why can’t you have the best of both worlds? Also, it may be a huge pain in the you know what, but aren’t some things worth the pain?

  • @Mrs. New Last Name: using both names in different contexts can definitely make sense. For me (and I think a lot of other people) my personal and professional lives bleed into each other making that bright line much dimmer. For instance: which name do you put on you W-2? Your original name or your married name?
    Perhaps some things are worth the pain, but I think that any perceived benefit I’d get from changing my name (and it should be obvious that I see almost none) is not enough to outweigh that pain.
    But I’m not trying to judge other people’s decisions, just share my thoughts on the idea. Thanks for the comment!

  • I changed my name and really haven’t had problems. I’ve been married almost four years (working for about 7) and would say it took a couple of months to iron things out, but after that – the sheer simplicity of it is worth it to me. Great post!

  • Thanks for the comment thirdsectorwi! Glad to hear the change worked out for you 🙂

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  • Emma Whelan


    This is exactly the reason I kept my maiden name when I married my husband, although avoiding the pain-in-the-assness of it all was a nice perk 😉

    • Yes – though the argument sounds grand, I largely want to avoid the pain-in-the-assness as well 🙂

  • Diana soon to be Featherston

    I don’t know if I can agree with your “this is the best choice for every woman” point of view. I find this is really a personal choice a woman has to make on par with having children. Having children can impact you professionally. That doesn’t mean everyone makes the choice not to have them. The importance, as always, is knowing that there will be consequences to every decision.

    I really can’t speak for anyone else but I can tell you my deciding factor, one day when I have children I want to be a unit, a family with a common name. It isn’t about belonging to my husband, it is about a family belonging with each other. That is what is important to me personally, so if I have to work harder to rebuild my reputation, I will.

    • I’m not saying its the best choice for every woman – far be it from me to tell any other woman what do with her life, body or name. I am pointing out the serious consequences to the decision and making an argument that I think some women (many?) make the decision because that’s what people think they should do or because they don’t feel like they actually have any other choice.

      Congrats on your upcoming (I’m assuming) wedding!

  • Mrs. Hanna

    I have to say, I just started reading your blog yesterday Elisa, and I’ve read through a number of the articles and found them empowering and informative.  However, I was disappointed when I clicked on this article and found out you chose a name change after marriage as “professional suicide”.  I get the point that you’re making, but I agree with Diana soon to be Featherston.  Marriage is such a special thing, and for me personally, sharing your husbands last name is a big part of it.  I got married 10 months ago and was truly excited to take my husband’s last name and feel like we were really officially a family.  And when we decide to have kids, I want us all to have the same last name. 

    Like I said before, I do get where your coming from, but I feel like there is so much pressure in trying to build your career as a woman already, and especially when you add the life changes of marriage, getting pregnant, and having kids.  In fact, when I got engaged, I was looking for a new job, and had a mentor tell me that I shouldn’t wear my engagement ring to job interviews because the employers will see it and think I will need tons of time off for my wedding, honeymoon, and the babies that are sure to come, and that overall would expect me to be a distracted worker because of the other things going on in my personal life.  It really upset me to hear that, and I am not saying that there is no truth to that.  But it just adds for me the feeling that being a woman, and particularly a married woman who looks forward to having kids one day as well as a successful career is something to look at negatively.  And I was surprised to hear this point of view expressed, and especially from another woman. 

    • Thanks for reading the blog – I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

      To be clear: I was not making a judgement on anyone who wants to change her name after marriage nor am I saying that my opinion is the most important one – of course you should do what you want. What I’m saying is that in today’s socially-networked, constantly online world, changing it can have serious consequences for your career. If you’re prepared to accept those consequences (and obviously you were) then more power to you.

      To be honest however, I think that changing one’s name is a rather antiquated vestige of a time when one’s reputation, products and thought leadership weren’t available online for all to see and when women weren’t expected to do much anyway except leave the office to have children and stay home for the rest of their lives.

      Personally, I’ve attempted through this blog and other means to establish myself as a thought leader and I know that I’ll lose most of that reputation if I throw out my name. You note the pressure women face and I couldn’t agree with you more; I just feel that by changing your name you give into the pressure and change yourself instead of pushing back against it and forcing others to acknowledge you as a person who exists outside of her relationships to men and children.

      Again – thanks so much for reading! I hope you’ll stay engaged and keep commenting. I need and want the push back from everyone!

  • Lory Adamjolie

    Interesting post, Elisa and even more interesting comments.

    Changing one’s name is completely voluntary–women are not “under pressure” to do so. I certainly don’t feel “pressure” to change my name. As a matter of fact, I can’t hardly wait to change my name when I get married. Irrespective of my surname, my professional skills, expertise and abilities will continue to speak for itself. 

    I think some women put the pressure on themselves about minute little details like whether or not to change their name post marriage. I believe when you take that sacred oath to become a unit it’s implied that you and your spouse will become one family unit through your name as well. Plus, it’s confusing to children when mom and dad have different names. And let me just say FAMILY is the most important thing about being human–the closeness, love and trust you share with your spouse and children is far more valuable than any professional aspirations. 

    I am very fortunate to have been raised the way I was by my parents because I certainly don’t have an itch or incline to worry about things like this. Strong and assertive women should be able to make decisions like this without worrying about what others think about them or their decision, or even how that decision will affect their future success. I mean if you’re afraid you can’t be just as successful with a different name (or even MORE successful), then who are you? Your name and the work you’ve built on that name doesn’t define you–your integrity, hard work and perseverance define who you are.

    At the end of the day, others should see more growth and success after you’ve changed your name. Using a name change as an excuse for professional suicide means you’re afraid, weak and a follower.

    • Thanks for your comment Lory.

      I think it might be a minor miracle that you have never felt or faced pressure around marriage or family-related issues; I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t. The pressure is all around, in every area of women’s lives and in issues far more complex and impactful than a name (though I would argue that your name is incredibly important in this day and age).

      I would argue against your assertion that someone would use “a name change as an excuse for professional suicide.” It’s not about ‘using’ it at all; its about the way society – and more importantly employers – perceive someone who has no name recognition. After all, if there is nothing to hitch your reputation to, is it even a reputation at all?

      Again, thanks for the comment and good luck!

  • Hi Elisa,
    I just came across your post and found it an interesting thought.  I have a complicated name-history.  My mum kept her maiden name and I had a hyphenated (truly awful) name until I was 19 when I took my middle name as my surname.  I got married last year and had much angst in choosing what to do.  Professional reasons were a consideration, but I was more involved in weighing up being true to myself and my Mum, my confusion over which was my ‘real’ name, and the desire to have a shared family name.  So I opted for a compromise, I joined my surname with my husbands and we now BOTH have a new name (Rosestone).  I was lucky to have a name where I could do that.
    I found that having added ‘stone’ on the end of my name has meant most people still know who I am.  I was also lucky that I established some of my online presence (such as my blog) after I had decided how I would change my name.  But I do feel that most people are accepting of a change of name as long as you re-brand yourself clearly and offer links so people can find your history as well.  Which might mean running a ‘formerly know as’ line for a while, or having both names listed so they can be found my search engines.  I don’t think changing your name has to be professional suicide.  It just has be organised and consistent.

    • Hi Stephanie – thanks for commenting! I hear what you’re saying about the connection with your ‘original’ name (whatever that may be) and the confusion that can come from changing or altering. In theory, I agree with the premise that a name change can be done in an organized manner; however in practice I’ve never actually seen it done. I can’t count how many times I’ve been confused by meeting a woman at an event and then getting a LinkedIn request from that same woman with a different name (and not knowing who she was). Or seeing her name listed in her email address one way and then in her email signature another way. The list goes on.

      The point is, if you could make the change quickly or cleanly, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But name changes, as I’m sure you know, are not simple to do (just the legal paperwork is annoying and then when you add every single bill, credit card, address change, etc. it seems nearly insurmountable to me). if you’ve already got a well-established career or professional brand, it will never be easy. And in the process of making the change, you’ll end up confusing people – and ultimately losing them.

      Thanks again for commenting!


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